I’d always wanted to travel. It started as a young teenager when I went to Europe on holiday with my parents. In the 1970s, overseas travel wasn’t that common and I now realise how fortunate I was. By the time I hit eighteen, I had a fair few stamps in my passport and my ‘things to do before I die’ was no more than a list of places I wanted to go. At the top of this wish-list was an overland trip through Africa, though how I knew about it in the Internet-free world of my teens is a mystery. Some twenty years later, I finally got to tick it off the list.
Since a career and marriage tend to put the brakes on having big adventures it wasn’t until I reached my early forties that I had the time and money to do what I wanted. After decades in corporate life and the bog-standard four weeks off a year, I was more than ready for a life-changing trip so, with a contract coming to an end, I booked it. Like-minded friends and colleagues were excited for me and jokingly envious, but others weren’t as generous. Comments like: ‘it’s a bit reckless at your age’, ‘what about your career?’ and ‘you’re lucky you can just swan off like that’ were common. Since I was divorced with no kids and commitment-free, I put it down to plain old jealousy and shrugged it off. It was time for me to move on.
I left London on a chilly September morning and arrived to the heat of Kenya at dusk. As I headed for a down-town Nairobi hotel, peering through the taxi window at my first glimpse of Africa, I felt my old life slip away and tasted freedom for the first time in years. Walking down to the hotel bar later, my smiles faded. I was nervous about meeting the others and worried that I wouldn’t fit in being so much older than the average overlander; my ‘what if’ gremlin had taken hold. Within half an hour I’d chatted to everyone and relaxed; it was going to be alright. Thirteen of us were doing the entire three-month trip and others, I was told, would come and go along the way. Our core group was a mixture of nationalities and ages, couples and lone travellers, like me. Only one woman really stood out. She was clad in khaki from head to toe, with an Indiana Jones style hat and, as it turned out, she would wear this outfit throughout the trip, like some throwback to Dinesen’s ‘Out of Africa’.
The next morning I saw our home-from-home overland truck. It was huge and cleverly kitted out with room under each seat for personal belongings and hinged slits near the driver’s cabin, for tables, chairs and tents. A large locker inside was for fresh food, another held cooking utensils and iron grids for the camp-fire. There was even a pull-down griddle with a gas cylinder if we couldn’t find charcoal. Anna, our tour guide and driver briefed us on immigration processes, handed out the cook group rota and issued strict warnings about washing hands. She also told us never to walk barefoot or oddly, to put money in our mouths.
Finally, I was off. With a route from Kenya to South Africa of over 2,500 miles, we often had to pound along poorly built African roads for ten to twelve hours a day, leaving before daybreak and arriving at twilight. Some nights it was hard to put up the tent and wait for the cook group to deliver the evening meal, even harder if it was my turn. For the first few weeks, I sank into my sleeping bag exhausted, eyes stinging as I wrote my diary.
Travelling for hours on end was hard and in the dark, boring. But as the landscape shifted and transformed out of the window, my preconceptions of Africa changed with it. I watched the Rift Valley, with its lush green hills and tea plantations give way to the plains, with their TV-familiar flat-topped Acacia trees. I walked along a deserted beach in Zanzibar at sunset then later sat on the knife-edge of a sand dune in Namibia at sunrise, watching the colours change from black, to burnt ochre to orange. The Skeleton Coast was freezing and bleak after the heat of the desert and the stark white salt pan of the Ngoro Ngoro Crater was a ghostly sight at twilight. But it wasn’t just the land that was enthralling. One night we camped in the Namib Desert and despite warnings about scorpions, I ditched the tent and cocoon-like in my sleeping bag, I gazed up at the thousands upon thousands of stars that carpeted the night sky.
Alongside the changing vistas, the fragrance of Africa wafted in through the glassless windows like smoke from a fire. I could almost feel the cycle of life that throbbed in its musky, earthy aroma. On the plains the air was warm and fresh but as we passed through towns and villages along the way, it was hard to ignore the acrid assault of sewage and rotting piles of rubbish that emanated from some. I’d seen documentaries about the level of poverty in Africa but it was something else to come face-to-face with it. I saw a lot of heart-wrenching sights during the journey but it was when I saw an open sewer in Rwanda with children hopping through it that my heart nearly broke. Here I was, a privileged Westerner, heading through their village to buy food from their meagre market to cook our group’s third meal of the day. Guilt and shame overwhelmed me as hoards of smiling bedraggled kids held our hands while we walked. That one moment more than many others, made me realise how much I took for granted: it was a humbling experience.
But the long days of travelling did mean that we had time to stop-over in different National Parks for a few days or slow-down to watch the wildlife. It was awe-inspiring to see animals in the wild, especially up-close. On a foot safari in Kenya I was surprised to get within ten feet of two gangly giraffes who stared through thick, spidery eyelashes. From the truck I watched a herd of elephants, with their young, stealthily thread through trees, trunks swaying. A noisy ribbon of flamingos in Uganda moved away into the lake as I tried to snap a picture, like we were dancing. The peeping eyes of hippos didn’t prepare me for their size when they reared up, jaws gaping. I saw a family of rhinos munching grass, oblivious to the clicking of our cameras twenty feet away. The kneeling warthogs were comical and the noise of jackals ‘laughing’ in the distance was more creepy than funny. I got to see a cheetah, a rare-find by an eagle-eyed guide, sitting motionless in a tree, his spots almost hidden by the leaves. On a night safari in I held my breath as I watched a lion and lioness yawning, not more than six feet away, eyes glinting red in the torchlight. When two lion cubs walked within four feet of our stationary truck, I was star-struck and silent. And, by some heavenly intervention, I saw the start of the migration on the Serengeti through my binoculars. The sheer thrill of seeing all these animals in their natural habitat was beyond anything I’d imagined.
I visited nine countries in twelve weeks and each one added something different to the video that I knew would run in my head for the rest of my life. Like my shiver of fear when an elephant walked past my tent in the middle of the night and the panic that shook me to my core when I went white-water rafting on the Nile, or the sound of lions roaring at night and the deafening cascade of Victoria Falls. I took hundreds of pictures, but some of the most magical moments were impossible to capture on film.
One such moment was in Botswana. When we arrived I was stir-crazy from weeks on the road and grumpy with it. To avoid a snappy argument, I opted out of a rough camp to get some alone-time. That evening I met George. He was a retired South African businessman with a long white beard, blue eyes and fascinating tales of the old days. The beer flowed as we nattered late into the night and my grumpiness dissolved. When he told me he was touring Africa on a Harley Davidson, he must have seen the glint in my eye. I’d always loved the growl of those bikes and the ‘mad, bad and dangerous to know’ attitude of the riders. Mid-morning the next day, George pulled up next to the truck dressed in black from head to toe astride a gleaming silver Harley. When we got to the road, he revved that sweet machine and whispered ‘welcome to my world’ and as I lifted my arms to the sky, we hurtled along an empty ruler-straight strip of tarmac, past droves of donkeys, into the blue horizon of Africa.
[My fourth assignment for my OU course]
Does anyone else have fantastic tales of Africa to share?
Categories: Just Travels